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art produced during World War II. One very high-ceilinged room has a wall lined with
dozens of expressive busts by sculptor Villu Jaanisoo.
The fourth-floorexhibit, called “Difficult Choices,” is an interesting survey of Estoni-
an art from the end of World War II until “re-independence” in 1991. Some of the works
are mainstream, while others are by dissident artists.
Estonian art parted ways with Western Europe with the Soviet takeover in 1945. The
Soviets insisted that artworks actively promote the communist struggle, and to that end,
Estonian artists were forced to adopt the Stalinist formula, making paintings that were done
in the traditional national style but that were socialist in content—in the style now called
Socialist Realism.
Socialist Realism had its roots in the early 20th-century Realist movement, whose artists
wanted to depict the actual conditions of life rather than just glamour and wealth—in
America, think of John Steinbeck's novels or Walker Evans' photographs of the rural poor.
In the Soviet Union, this artistic curiosity about the working class was perverted into an
ideology: Art was supposed to glorify labor and the state's role in distributing its fruits. In
a system where there was ultimately little incentive to work hard, art was seen as a tool to
motivate the masses, and to support the Communist Party's hold on power.
In the collection's first room, called “A Tale of Happiness,” you'll see syrupy images
of what Soviet leadership imagined to be the ideal of communist Estonia. In Agitator
Amongst the Voters (1952), a stern portrait of Stalin in the hazy background keeps an eye
on a young hotshot articulating some questionable ideas; his listeners' reactions range from
shudders of horror to smirks of superiority. The Young Aviators (1951) shows an eager
youngster wearing a bright-red neckerchief (indicating his membership in the Pioneers, the
propaganda-laden communist version of Scouts) telling his enraptured schoolmates stories
about a model airplane.
The next room shows canvases of miners, protesters, speechifiers, metalworkers, and
more all doing their utmost for the communist society. You'll also see paintings of industri-
al achievements (like bridges), party meetings, and, of course, the great leader Stalin him-
self. Because mining was big in Estonia, miners were portrayed as local heroes, marching
like soldiers to their glorious labor. Women were depicted toiling side by side with men, as
equal partners. (Though they're not always on display here, posters were a natural fit, with
slogans exhorting laborers to work hard on behalf of the regime.)
While supposedly a reflection of “real” life, Socialist Realism art was formulaic and
showed little creative spirit. Though some Estonian artists flirted with social commentary
and the avant-garde, a few ended up in Siberia as a result.
Estonia's Singing Revolution
When you are a humble nation of just a million people lodged between Russia and
Germany (and tyrants such as Stalin and Hitler), simply surviving is a challenge.
Estonia was free from 1920 to 1939. Then they had a 50-year Nazi/Soviet nightmare.
Estonians say, “We were so few in numbers that we had to emphasize that we exist.
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